What To Do (and Not Do) Every Afternoon To Sleep Better at Night, According to Sleep Doctors

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As nice as it might be to rely on a single thing for great sleep (say, nixing blue light exposure or meditating), its quality and duration hinges on a number of factors, including those aforementioned two, how you eat, when you exercise, and more. As those habits shift, your natural circadian rhythm (or 24-hour body clock) does as well. And as a result, it’s not just the actions you take right before bed that steer your sleep quality, but in fact, what you do all day long. So, it’s very possible to optimize your afternoon routine, in particular, to bring on better sleep at night.

While the afternoon is likely several hours away from your typical bedtime, how you spend it can essentially have a ripple effect on the undulating waves of the wakefulness hormone cortisol and sleepiness hormone melatonin coursing through your body.

There are a handful of activities you might do in the afternoon to help ensure you feel sleepy when you want to be (aka at night)... and not any earlier than that.

For one example, spending your afternoon without much or any exposure to light could trigger an over-production of melatonin, making you more sleepy then and less so come nighttime, when the melatonin wave would level out rather than spiking in response to darkness. By contrast, getting lots of natural light as part of both an afternoon and morning routine for better sleep is a great idea, says sleep specialist Angela Holliday-Bell, MD: “This helps to set your circadian rhythm, making it easier to fall asleep at night.”

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But beyond seeing the light of day, there are a handful of activities you might do in the afternoon to help ensure you feel sleepy when you want to be (aka at night)... and not any earlier than that. And while you definitely don’t need to do all of them every day, they’re great benchmarks for whenever your sleep quality could use some TLC.

6 things to do (and not do) in the afternoon in order to sleep more soundly at night

1. Do 30 minutes (or more) of exercise.

You might not be surprised to know that upping your heart rate with some cardio during the afternoon can make you sleepier come nightfall. But the sleep-promoting benefits of exercise extend further: Not only does doing physical activity make you more likely to fall asleep more easily, but it can also help you get more of that deep-wave sleep the body needs for restoration, says Dr. Holliday-Bell.

And research backs up that assertion: In a 2013 study of 1,000 people, those who exercised regularly were more likely to report a good night’s sleep, while a smaller 2010 study of 48 folks with insomnia found that regular, moderate-intensity aerobic exercise helped reduce pre-sleep anxiety and improve sleep quality.

Because the act of exercising can be stimulating in the moment, though (blame the rush of endorphins and adrenaline it creates), it’s often more helpful to make exercise a part of an afternoon (or morning) routine for better sleep, rather than doing it closer to your bedtime. And bonus points if you can take that workout outdoors, where you’ll also get some of that helpful exposure to natural light.

2. Take a power nap before 2pm.

Almost every instance of sleeping during the day can disrupt nighttime sleep—except for this one. Particularly if you’re sleep-deprived, a “20-minute nap [in the early afternoon] can be refreshing and help increase alertness for a few hours,” behavioral sleep-medicine specialist Shelby Harris, PsyD, DBSM, previously told Well+Good. Once your bedtime rolls around that night, you won’t have quite as much sleep to make up for, which could help calm the all-too-common rush of anxious thoughts about whether you’ll clock enough sleep overall.

3. Write in a “worry” journal.

Stress from the day has a way of piling up only to seemingly overflow in your mind right as you’re trying to drift off. To get ahead of that, Dr. Holliday-Bell suggests writing in what she calls a “worry” journal.

“You can record anything you’re worried about or any items you have on a to-do list in the journal, so that when it’s time to fall asleep later that night, your brain has already processed these things,” she says. The important thing is not to do this exercise right before you’re trying to sleep, and instead carve out time in the afternoon for it so you’re keeping this “worry” time very separate from any calming pre-bed ritual, she adds.

4. Practice a relaxation technique.

You might associate relaxation with a nighttime routine—and it totally has its place there. But according to Dr. Holliday-Bell, practicing deep-breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or meditation exercises in the afternoon can actually make them more effective come bedtime. Why? The afternoon is a low-stress window when you’re not actively trying to move your body into sleep mode, she says. Once you get comfortable with relaxation exercises in that scenario, they’ll become easier to tap into when you’re tossing and turning and could really use them.

5. Skip the afternoon coffee.

A pick-me-up espresso can be so tempting. But it’s best to keep any caffeine intake to the morning, and reach for an energizing snack instead if the afternoon slump hits. “Caffeine has a half-life of about five hours,” says Dr. Holliday-Bell, “which means that after five hours, half of whatever you consumed will remain in your system.” Do the math, and it's clear that even a 1 or 2 p.m. coffee can have a lingering stimulating effect well into the evening—which could get in the way of your ability to doze off.

6. Avoid getting into your bed for *any* reason.

Chiropractors and career experts alike will tell you to avoid work sessions on your bed (whether in the morning or afternoon), the former citing its posture-wrecking effects, and the latter, its potential to psychologically blur work-life boundaries. And now, you can add sleep experts to that list, too: Because the brain connects the bed with nighttime activities, using it in the afternoon can confuse things and subtly mess with your sleep schedule. “We tell patients that the bed is for sleep and for sex,” sleep specialist Carleara Weiss, PhD, previously told Well+Good. “Everything else needs to be outside of the bed.”

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